Merchants in historic Philadelphia market grapple with pandemic

Jonnelle Marte –

Athens Voulgaridis and his family have run their Greek gyro stand in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market since 1984, outlasting three recessions and a trademark battle with the US Olympic Committee.
No crisis has hit the business as hard as the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused a brief shutdown and slashed sales by as much as 80 per cent at the lowest point.
Typically a bustling hub of restaurants, shops and food vendors, the indoor market, which celebrated its 128th anniversary on Monday, stayed open throughout the pandemic. But with conventions on pause, tourism down and much of the lunch crowd now working remotely, foot traffic at the market whittled down to roughly a third of its normal levels.
“We were wiped out,” said Annie Allman, who took over as chief executive and general manager of the Reading Terminal Market in late January.
Merchants selling meat, cheese and other staple grocery items in one of the country’s oldest and largest markets have seen steadier traffic. But restaurants that cater to people in need of a quick bite or visiting the landmarked building located conveniently close to the city hall and convention centre downtown were more acutely affected by restrictions on travel and indoor dining to slow the spread of the virus.
Visits to the greater Philadelphia area dropped by as much as 40 per cent last year and spending by visitors was cut roughly in half, according to projections from Econsult Solutions, Inc.
The challenges the market’s merchants are facing are indicative of the hurdles impeding restaurants, shops and other service industry employers across the country that are seeing slow rebounds as people remain hesitant to travel or spend time close to each other indoors.
“All our customer base has just disappeared,” said Voulgaridis, 48, who took over the family business, Olympia Gyro, in 2009 as the economy was coming out of the Great Recession. In 2012, he received a cease and desist notice from the US Olympic Committee, requiring him to change the name of the business from Olympic Gyro.
While sales are improving after the city reinstated indoor dining earlier this year, they are still down by about 65 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, Voulgaridis said.
“This was just taking a knife to everything and cutting the lifeline to everything you’ve had,” he said.
— Reuters